Northern Kings

Joshua Hutchins heads north to Tauranga for kingfish and a touch of trout

Late last year, Lucas Allen, a fly fishing guide from Tauranga, reached out to me after seeing the fun we’d had on the Golden Bay kingfish in the South Island (FL#84). He invited me on a trip up north, and of course, I was interested. Tauranga Harbour was the New Zealand birthplace of the kingfish ‘ray-riding’ phenomenon, so I was excited to see how this fishery operated. We set the date for late January and hoped for good weather. When Lucas picked me up from the Tauranga airport he gave me his predictions for the next three days: “This year has had consistent wind, but I think you will get lucky… but maybe not tomorrow.” We set off on our first day with a ‘late’ start of just after 6 a.m. The morning was brisk and the wind built over the day. While the light was still low we cast to some markers in the harbour channels and went looking for bow-waves in the shallows of a side creek. A few fish spotted, but no real action yet. RAY-RIDING KINGS By midday the sun was finally high, but so was the wind. Much like my Golden Bay adventures, we were looking for stingrays accompanied by ray-riding kingfish. The difference this time was the advantage of Lucas’s boat. Having the higher viewing point along with the stealth of the electric motor made it an entirely different game to roaming the flats on foot. Despite the windy conditions, the stingrays soon showed up and so did the fish. Our first close encounter involved two free-swimming kingfish that spooked when we drifted over them, noticing them too late. Soon after, a ray appeared and, just as it should, the first cast revealed two passengers, one of which latched onto my fly. We were on the board! Prior to that, I think Lucas was worried we were going to have a blank day. I know the feeling. But we finished with two off three connections and considering the wind, we were stoked with the results. Day two was still windy but it didn’t matter: we got out early and managed a nice fish straight off the first channel marker. Lucas took me to a few more areas worth a cast before the light finally kicked in. The whole harbour was breathtaking. A mix of islands, channels, creek inlets, and of course a great selection of sandy flats —Tauranga was full of potential. Battling cloud for most of the day we decided to head into some of the shallower flats on the ‘town side’, as Lucas referred to it. We immediately saw a large stingray slowly making its way along the flat. In such shallow, clear water it was obvious that it was carrying some kings. First cast revealed the goods and we were back into action. Another ray was in sight no more than five minutes later. “This one is yours!” I yelled, as Lucas began stripping line to make the cast. He made the shot and a kingfish leapt from the ray to gulp the fly. Two from two, we were on a roll. At this point the temperature was rising, and along with it, an increasing number of stingrays with kingfish on board. “Check out this school bus!” Lucas called, pointing at a large stingray followed by a multitude of yellow-tailed passengers. One cast with the popper and the entire area was reduced to froth as eight or so kingfish fought for the fly. The excitement may have been a little too much for us. Three from three, turned out to be three from six. But we had so much fun that afternoon. PICTURE PERFECT Day three was one of the most exciting days fishing I’ve had in a long time. Again, we started early. This time we headed up to one of the larger creek inlets and began searching for early morning bow-waves. We waded some of the shallow mangrove areas, but very little showed. Lucas made the call to head to a new flat and by the time we arrived the sun was up with not a single breath of wind. “I’ve been waiting for this day all season,” he said. This particular bay was beautiful and the picture perfect conditions helped set the tone. The rays were following an edge where a clear sandy strip joined a dark weedy area, and we often saw the bow-wave of the kingfish before the ray itself. Lucas took the first of the day and mine came on the next drift. My fish was quite an interesting take. It followed the first cast but wouldn’t commit. On the second cast I varied the retrieve, and only when I stopped the fly dead in its face did it have no option but to eat. We cheered in astonishment as the reel screamed to the backing once again. Not every NZ kingfish is simply a matter of cast-and-retrieve as fast as you can. That day we ran into Gareth Bayliss and local legend Dick Marquand. Dick is one of the most committed guys I have ever met, fishing the flats just about every month of the year. He recently landed a 1.2 metre kingie off the flats in Tauranga. Gareth jumped on the boat to come and check out a few of the channel markers with the change of tide. Only a few hundred metres from the flat, we approached the first marker. It was a beautiful sight: eight large kingfish, all 1–1.3 metres, circling the marker on the surface, tails out and all. The largest of the fish was undoubtedly over 30 kilos and nearly gave me heart failure as it followed my popper all the way to the boat without eating. We decided to give them five minutes to settle before throwing another cast. They soon rose back to the top and continued their circular pattern, weaving around the two wooden posts of the marker. This time my cast was met with much more enthusiasm as three big kingfish fought for the popper, and eventually one connected. Some stern pressure on the fish early in the fight steered it clear of the marker, so I knew it was just a matter of time. 104 cm to the tail, I was a very happy man. I’ve never witnessed a kingfish so fat across the belly. Thinking the action was over, Lucas and I dropped Gareth back on the flats and continued on our way. Ten minutes later, Lucas noticed a message on his phone saying Gareth was connected to a big fish and needed our help. We rushed back towards them but it was easy to see from his body language that Gareth had lost the fish. “How big was it?” I asked. “Over 20 kilos. It ran me to the final turns on my backing, then broke when I tried to stop it.” He was still retrieving the hundreds of metres of backing as we arrived.Then we noticed another school of large fish entering the flats. These were big kings, 20–25 kg. Gareth didn’t have a fly, so I grabbed my rod from the holder and made the cast. They were all over my popper, but the combination of the afternoon waves and their excitement meant every bite failed to fully consume the popper. We didn’t see them again, but that moment was awesome! Tauranga had me so satisfied, yet still craving for more! A TOUCH OF TROUT Leading into this trip, Lucas convinced me to leave one day aside to try some of the local trout fishing. I nearly regretted this, having been so fired up from the kingfish action and craving another day. But I decided to stick to the plan. Local trout guide Julian Danby picked me up from my hotel in Tauranga and in less than an hour we were walking up a stunning little creek. Sadly, our enthusiasm was equalled by two local anglers who had the same idea for the long weekend. They beat us by twenty minutes — ironically neither party had fished that ‘secret spot’ for months. They were kind to us, letting us claim a chunky rainbow in the next pool before we bailed out for plan B. “It’s all good mate, I know a pilot close by who can chopper us into another river.” Well that sounded pretty exciting. To that point I’d never used a chopper in New Zealand. It seemed too easy, and for a last minute option proved to be the right move. Derek our pilot was all too happy to save the day, and flew us into a stunning piece of water in backcountry Rotorua. It was a strange feeling to be in the middle of the wilderness throwing dry flies at eager rainbows after such an intense day on the kingfish. But it was also a revelation about how amazing this area is — kingfish and plentiful trout all within an hour of each other. A dozen trout, 3 to 4 pounds on dry fly, and Derek returned to collect us. Julian and Derek fuelled my imagination as they talked about other far-flung rivers worth flying to when I have more time. “There’s bigger fish and more of them.” They certainly had my attention. I couldn’t be any more satisfied with my four day North Island experience. There are probably very few other places around the globe that can offer a world class saltwater and trout fishery in such close proximity as Tauranga and the Rotorua district. Somehow it took me many years to get back to the North Island, but that will no longer be the case. Special thanks to Lucas Allen of King Tide Salt Fly, and Julian Danby of Rotorua Trout Guide Limited for putting this amazing program together.

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